Zola's Riley Keough On Empathy And Her Character's 'Blaccent' : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders Sam interviews Riley Keough, one of the stars of Zola— a new movie adapted from a viral 148-tweet thread story full of sex work, guns and plot twists. They talk about how Riley prepared her character's "blaccent," why she tends to play unlikeable characters, and how she became a death doula.

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Riley Keough On 'Zola' And Finding Empathy For Anti-Heroes

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(SOUNBITE OF MUSIC)

SAM SANDERS, HOST:

In 2015, a woman named Zola wrote a 148-tweet tweet storm. It was unlike anything I'd ever read on Twitter before. It began with these words - y'all want to hear a story about why me and this B-word here fell out? It's kind of long, but full of suspense.

This was a story about strippers and sex work and maybe human trafficking. But also, it was really, really funny. And it had a lot of plot and twists and turns and heroes and villains. It was cinematic. Flash-forward to now, and "Zola" is a feature film.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ZOLA")

TAYLOUR PAIGE: (As Zola) You want to hear a story about how me and this bitch fell out? It's kind of long, but it's full of suspense.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: So in this tweet storm, now a movie, Zola is this waitress in Detroit. An exotic dancer named Stefani comes into her restaurant. They hit it off, and Stefani convinces Zola to go down to Florida for a weekend of stripping and making a lot of money.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ZOLA")

RILEY KEOUGH: (As Stefani) My roommate just told me that he going down there tomorrow, and he asked me if I had any friends that want to make some money. And you the first bitch I thought of.

PAIGE: (As Zola) When we leaving?

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLPHONE NOTIFICATION TONE)

KEOUGH: (As Stefani) Be ready by 2.

SANDERS: But the road trip turned into something much bigger and darker and scarier. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders. And today on the show, we talk about "Zola" with one of its stars, Riley Keough. Riley plays the villain in this film, Stefani, or as she calls her, the demon.

Riley is drawn to performances like this. In some of her most standout roles to date, the series "The Girlfriend Experience" or the movie "American Honey," she isn't playing a hero at all. She's playing complicated characters living uncomfortable lives, doing things a lot of people wouldn't approve of. In this interview, Riley tells me why she made that her niche and also how she learned her blaccent for Zola - yeah, it's a blaccent - and why she was comfortable, as a white woman, using it. We'll also discuss how her very famous family, the Presleys, does and does not affect her work.

All right. I like this chat a lot. I think you will, too. Enjoy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: You know, so this movie, "Zola," it is born out of a 148-tweet-long tweet storm that first told Zola's story. You know, I've never seen a film come from tweets like this. You've been acting a while. There was a time, I think, when no one thought this could happen. Could you have ever imagined, even five or six years ago, that you would be starring in a film that came out of a Twitter story?

KEOUGH: Never. And when I heard that - 'cause I read the Twitter thread in real time in 2015, when it came out, when the rest of the world read the Twitter thread. And they told me that they're making a film, and they're going to send me the script. And I was just - I remember thinking, how do you adapt a Twitter thread? Like, how does (laughter) - how do you - how does a brain do that, you know?

SANDERS: Well, 'cause I walked into the movie yesterday saying, well, if I've read the tweets, am I going to get something new from the film? And I did. And yeah, it worked. It worked in this surprising way. How would you describe your character in the film, Stefani?

KEOUGH: Stefani is a - she's a demon. She's...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

KEOUGH: (Laughter). She's kind of just like a walking inappropriate nightmare.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ZOLA")

KEOUGH: (As Stefani) Money, titties, money, titties...

You know, on the page when I read her, you know, it's very clear that she's just this really offensive, out of control person, you know, and the villain? She's the villain of the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ZOLA")

KEOUGH: (As Stefani) I was like, look booger bitch - best get your ghetto ass up out my face. It's not my fault you nasty. It's not my fault...

I think that what was interesting about that is when you're playing a villain, you always really need to make sure to find empathy for them and to find - you know, especially as the performer, you want to be able to - you have to connect to your character...

SANDERS: Yeah.

KEOUGH: ...And totally sort of step in their shoes. And I really couldn't find that at first. I - you know, the first time I read it, I was just like, OK, she's just awful, you know?

SANDERS: (Laughter) But fun.

KEOUGH: She's fun. Yeah, she's fine. She's - you know, she's totally, you know, enigmatic in this way. She's kind of like this wild woman that you kind of - you're - you kind of want to go on a trip with her. But it could go two ways, you know?

But yeah, I think that, you know, you're also witnessing a woman who's doing the best she can. And...

SANDERS: Yeah.

KEOUGH: ...You don't know how she was raised. You don't know the trauma she's experienced, you know? And I think always keeping that in mind - but yes, in the film, she's a demon.

(LAUGHTER)

KEOUGH: She's a - and I think you're supposed to kind of feel those ways. I don't - I hate her, and I like her, and I - you know, and, you know, just confused. And even the moments when you see her sort of, like, opening up or being vulnerable, I think there's always a question in the audience's mind of like, is this manipulation as well? You know?

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Coming up, how Riley prepared her character's blaccent. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: There's this one scene that Stefani is in that I just cannot get over. It was so powerful for me. That night where Stefani is kinda (ph) turning tricks all night, but the focus of the...

KEOUGH: (Laughter) Kinda.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Yeah (laughter), I take it back, not kinda - fulla (ph). (Laughter).

KEOUGH: Yeah (laughter).

SANDERS: But, like, during these multiple - like, during the sex scene where she's with multiple men, the focus of the camera is not really her. The focus of the camera, it's the men. And they're grunting...

KEOUGH: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...And huffing and puffing and making these awful sex faces and looking awkward and pathetic. And it's saying something about sex to me...

KEOUGH: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...Something different, something I don't usually see in movies. And I wonder, what did that scene say to you as you were making it - because the the object of the gaze had shifted?

KEOUGH: Yep. I mean, that - the scene was saying to me, this is what Stefani's experiencing, you know? And I think a lot of the time she's seeing these men from these angles, and this is - and feeling the intimacy of what that might be like, whereas when you're normally seeing, you know, sex, it looks romantic and sexy.

SANDERS: Yeah.

KEOUGH: And I don't know. It was - it felt like reality to me. It felt like this is the reality of what, you know, this would look like. And, you know, it's the first film I've - I haven't (laughter) - one of the first films I haven't been naked in.

SANDERS: Oh. That's crazy because hearing you say that now, I'm like, oh, you're right. I didn't notice that. Oh, my goodness.

KEOUGH: Yeah. And that in itself was, like, so funny to me. And it's not that I have any issue being naked, but it just was so funny to me that the first film I'm not naked in is "Zola" (laughter).

SANDERS: Is an extremely sexual film, yeah.

KEOUGH: Yeah, totally. It's very sexual. And I love that. You hear, OK, it's a - it's a movie about strippers and sex work. I'm going to see titties, you know? And there's none (laughter). And I love that. And...

SANDERS: Yeah.

KEOUGH: And then you're seeing - you know, you're seeing male - you're seeing male body parts, and there's a wide variety of [expletive]. Excuse my language.

SANDERS: No, it's OK. You can say it. Well, I also like with the way that - with all of that that you're talking about, you know - what are we looking at; what are we not seeing? - it is showing you how, especially in that scene where Stefani, your character, is just running through these men, we see sex scenes usually where the man has the power and the woman is serving the man.

KEOUGH: Yep.

SANDERS: In that scene, it felt like you had the power. They wanted you. You were composed and in control, and they were these awful crude-looking animals. And you were in charge. And I don't know. I found it refreshing.

KEOUGH: It is refreshing. And you know, I think - also in that scene, what you're seeing very clearly is what that might feel like. You know, like, it feels like a business...

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

KEOUGH: ...A bit.

SANDERS: She doesn't care about them.

KEOUGH: It's feel like it's...

SANDERS: Yeah.

KEOUGH: There's no emotion. There's no - you know, and that - I feel like the transactional aspect of it was captured really well in the way that Janicza shot it.

SANDERS: Yeah. I was watching you in the movie. And I was like, OK, she's about to cross that line, but she didn't. She's about to cross that line, but she doesn't - because it's like this kind of role not handled well could really be a minefield for you in our current moment, you know? A blonde white woman with a heavy blaccent whose character in some ways exploits a Black woman - was any part of you scared to take it on for those reasons and how fraught a role like that could be?

KEOUGH: In anybody else's hands other than Janicza's, I never would have ever even considered it.

SANDERS: Wow. Wow. What did she do as a director to make you feel that comfortable?

KEOUGH: Janicza is just such a genius. And the commentary she, you know, wanted to make and made, is making on all of these things - sex workers, female bodies, race - like, it's all so thoughtful. You know? And it's coming from such an incredibly genius place. And what she's doing sort of to the audience as you're watching this white woman talking the way she does and, you know, the Black woman talking the way she does, every single detail is like super profound and thoughtful. And so in anybody else's hands, I never would have made this film. And I think this film - there's a million different ways this film could have been made, you know? And I think that - I don't think I would have been interested in any of them. Like, Janicza was a huge part of why I wanted to do this film, you know?

SANDERS: How'd you prep the accent for Stefani in "Zola"? Who was the biggest source material inspiration? How did you prep?

KEOUGH: So I worked with this woman named Aris Mendoza, who's a writer and an actress. And in the beginning, it was like, OK, let's figure this out. Let's figure out what she's going to sound like, you know, 'cause in the script, it's very clear that the dialect - the words she's using and the way she's speaking is, like, very clearly appropriation.

SANDERS: Yeah.

KEOUGH: So then the question was, do we go there? Is that what Janicza wanted to do with the accent as well? And it was.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Was there one particular, like, turn of phrase or you're like, I can't get that one; it's too hard; I can't say it like that?

KEOUGH: Oh. I actually have videos because what really helped is Aris did this thing where she was like, OK, your your mouth's too tight and - 'cause I also have TMJ. She's like, you need to like, relax. So she would have me sit in her backyard. And she'd put a cork in my mouth.

SANDERS: What?

KEOUGH: (Laughter) Like a wine cork - and she'd put a cork in my mouth, and then she had me do all of my monologues with the cork in my mouth. And so I have all these videos...

(LAUGHTER)

KEOUGH: ...Of me with this cork in my mouth, like, going through my "Zola" monologues. And she - you know, it worked. And then the amazing thing was on set, like, because all of us were so close, you know, I also had everybody on set that if I - you know, if I forgot how to say something or if I was like - should I say it like this or should I say it like that? - you know, Colman would be like, no, no, no, say it like this. You know? Or like - or Taylour would be like, no, say it like that. You know?

So I had this environment where, like, we were all creating this demon together.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

KEOUGH: You know?

SANDERS: Creating this demon together.

KEOUGH: Yeah, yeah.

SANDERS: Yeah. And there's these small moments where I feel like one of the big themes is race as performance, sex as performance. These are personas we take on and characters we take on when we do things like sound Black or white or perform sex work. And there's this little quiet scene that I keep replaying in my head where your character is talking back to Zola, and it's a white woman and a Black woman going back and forth to each other saying, OK, bitch, OK, girl.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ZOLA")

KEOUGH: (As Stefani) OK, bitch.

PAIGE: (As Zola) OK, girl.

KEOUGH: (As Stefani) OK, girl.

PAIGE: (As Zola) OK, bitch.

KEOUGH: (As Stefani) OK...

SANDERS: But to see the two of you play with it, it was just wonderfully - it just captured this, like, element of, like, racial performance that the whole film seemed to be a commentary on, and I liked it.

KEOUGH: Well, I'm glad you liked it, and absolutely. And I think - and by the way, I think that's the only scene in the film that was improvised.

SANDERS: Wait. Really? Y'all improv'd that?

KEOUGH: Like, I think that - yeah. I mean, like, we - like, I think that, like, OK, bitch or something was there. And I think we just kept going...

SANDERS: Y'all did.

KEOUGH: ...'Cause we were just, like, making each other laugh.

(LAUGHTER)

KEOUGH: But I think that that was - yeah, that was kind of like the only moment in the whole film that was, like, kind of just us going off the script.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Up next - why Riley tends to play anti-heroes. Stick around.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Seems like you like taking on roles where you are not the main hero. You're an anti-hero. You're incredibly messy. What do you think that's all about?

KEOUGH: That's a really good question. You know, a lot of the times, those roles are more complicated to me. And I like that.

SANDERS: Yeah.

KEOUGH: I like that as an artist trying to sort of, like, figure out this person. It feels like I have a lot of work to do in terms of finding the empathy. And I love that experience as a Riley. And I feel like, especially female characters, are getting more and more complex and more realized. And within that, you're - you know, we're not all little, you know, angels walking around every day.

(LAUGHTER)

KEOUGH: And I think that, you know, I just like that process. I like the process of humanizing people that in the first meeting you're going, this is a villain. This is an unlikable person.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

You know, I noticed that a lot of your work is about money and not having it and needing to get it...

KEOUGH: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...And what people need to do when they need money. And I wonder - and I'm not here to go into, like, the names in your family tree, but I do wonder how much of you taking on these roles is connected to you having a mom who was rich and a dad who was not. Like, growing up seeing both...

KEOUGH: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...Does that affect - did that affect the way that you approach money in your work?

KEOUGH: Absolutely. Like, growing up with a mother who was very privileged and having those moments with a father who doesn't have much - you know, are heartbreaking and make you want to work hard for them. You know, having that, I got to experience that or wanting to help. And then I got to experience having a mother who literally had, you know, everything, you know? So it was a very bizarre upbringing. It's kind of thrown me somewhere in the middle in terms of like, yeah, I think I would - I probably have had a more - a different life than people would have expect from just like, you know, hearing that I'm, you know, Elvis' granddaughter.

SANDERS: Growing up, did you feel more connected to the rich side or the poor side?

KEOUGH: That's a really interesting question. Um, I have this thing from, like, early childhood where I felt so connected to, like all the sides. You know? I just, like - I felt like a sort of a witness in life, like I'm watching this movie more than a participant. And I felt like I fit in everywhere. You know, there's not a space where I feel really uncomfortable. And I think it's funny, though, because when I was a kid, my dad, he was living in an apartment at the time, and he would just make life really fun because he didn't have money. So we'd just do a lot of stuff. You know? And it was just a much different experience. And I remember saying to him one time, when I grow up, I want to be poor like you.

SANDERS: Wow. What did he say to you back?

KEOUGH: I don't remember. But I remember thinking at the time, like, this is going to be a compliment. He's going to love this, you know? (Laughter) And you know - and then as an adult, I'm going like, wow, that would have been a really hard thing to have your child say to you. And, you know, what I meant was, like, I loved his life and, like, I loved the simplicity of it. And I loved that we would go do things and spend quality time together. And, you know, I don't think it was a financial thing. But I just remember saying that to him and just sort of like, you know, what I thought - I thought that his life and his - the experiences I had with him, like, was because he was poor. You know? And...

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

KEOUGH: ...It was just, like, an interesting, like interpretation as a child.

SANDERS: (Unintelligible). You know, so much of the work you do, you are swallowed by these roles, and you really commit to them. And I'm sure most people - a lot of people watching you in this and in other work don't know who you are. Right? And do you want to keep that going? You know, do you want people to not think about you and your bio when they're watching you in these works? Or is there a moment where if you choose, you know, that conventional Hollywood route, they're going to know? Do you think about that? And like, do you wonder about how to use celebrity at some point to bring more people in maybe? 'Cause there's a certain kind of fame where, like, people have to, like, tell everybody everything about their entire lives.

KEOUGH: You know, what's funny about that is, like, I don't really care about that. I have no problem with being - everyone knowing everything about my life, you know? And I think that's because I grew up like that. I grew up with, you know, going to the grocery store and my mom's on the cover of all the magazines there. And, you know, there were photographers at my school. And, you know, it was kind of very - something I - it was probably similar to, like, how the Kardashians' kids are growing up now. Like, that was kind of my upbringing, you know? So I don't feel precious, weirdly, about people knowing me. And I think that the more people know about you, the more you can connect with people, you know? And I think that I love that so much about this generation. I love the openness, and I love the open communication.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. I do want to ask you one last question about something you've talked about recently that really made me want to ask you about it a lot.

KEOUGH: Yeah.

SANDERS: You shared on Instagram recently that you've become a death doula. I guess, first question - what does the death doula do?

KEOUGH: Yeah. So when I - I lost my brother in 2020. I felt the way that the - Western society handles death felt so deeply wrong to me on a soul level. And...

SANDERS: In what ways?

KEOUGH: Just the - how you're not - the first thing I remember thinking is, why didn't nobody warn me about grief in life? Why did nobody teach me that this can happen? And death is just so hidden from Western culture. And...

SANDERS: Yeah.

KEOUGH: ...It's like, you know, a person dies. They get taken away. You cover them up. You put them in a thing. And then the second thing was like, it was so hard to find resources, to find, like, what - like, people to help. And you have to really look. And in other spaces like birth, marriage, whatever, there's a crazy amount of resources for these big life experiences. And there aren't in death. You know, they're not, like, at Barnes and Noble all over the front, you know, right when you walk in. And I just felt really - I felt really like I was thrown in the ocean and I couldn't swim and nobody could teach me. And, you know, and that's obviously, like, a part of life. And you have to go through these experiences. And - but I just felt like if there's a way that I can contribute in that space, like, I was really wanting to do that.

SANDERS: Totally. Is there anything in that work that you think is or has become applicable to your day job, to your acting?

KEOUGH: I mean, applicable to my acting and also to life is like if you can take one of the most basic fears away, which is death, you're living a much more present, fulfilled life. And then, therefore, you're living - you know, I'll be more present for everything and more grateful and more able to show up and be there in acting or in my marriage or in my relationships.

SANDERS: I like that.

Hey, well, thank you so much for your time. Thank you for that incredible performance in "Zola." I've never seen anything like it before. I cannot wait to see what you do next. I really can't. Thank you so much.

KEOUGH: And thank you for your time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: Thanks again to Riley Keough. You can catch her new movie, "Zola," which is out tomorrow. Y'all, I watched it. I liked it. I really did.

All right. This episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE was produced by Liam McBain with help from Andrea Gutierrez, and it was edited by Jordana Hochman. Also, listeners, don't forget. We are back in your feeds this Friday with another episode. And for that one, you get to be a part of it. We want to hear the best things that have happened to you all week. Just record yourself, and then email that file to me, samsanders@npr.org.

All right, listeners, till Friday. Thanks, as always, for listening. Be good to yourselves. I'm Sam Sanders. We'll talk soon.

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